By Norma Coto, NVWP TC
Photos courtesy of Penny Gilchrist
“When we bring mindfulness into education, we help our students increase their attention, decrease their stress, and work more creatively with their social emotions.” These words, written by Congressman Tim Ryan in his book A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit, sum up why I came to the Harris Theater at George Mason University on September 30, 2012.
Courtesy of NVWP partner the Center for Consciousness and Transformation and Fall for the Book.org, Congressman Ryan came to share his book on mindfulness, his journey that led him to the practice of mindfulness, and his dreams for a nation reunited with all that is good within themselves and each other.
Mindfulness, an awareness of the present moment, has far reaching benefits. It teaches us to experience life instead of letting ourselves simply travel through it. Like the difference between driving with the windows up and driving with the windows down, mindfulness is feeling life in every moment. In the words of Dr. Susan Bauer-Wu who wrote the Afterword in A Mindful Nation, “Mindfulness is opening up to now, whatever is happening – within you and around you, pleasant or unpleasant.” Which means that mindfulness not only teaches you to enjoy the exhilarating wind as you travel through life in your metaphorical Ferrari, but also how to handle the occasional gnats that fly in.
Like the blue jeans and deep tan blazer he wore, Congressman Ryan embodied both sophistication and ease as he came on stage. The single podium remained alone when he stepped forward instead to engage the audience of faculty, administration, students, and visitors. He told moving and humorous stories from his book, A Mindful Nation, sharing insight into the practice of mindfulness and how it is being implemented across our nation right now. He wasn’t there to teach us mindfulness; this was no yoga or meditation lesson. But instead he was there to share how the simple, but not easy, practice of mindfulness can help all of us individually and thus help our nation collectively.
He asked us to start a “quiet revolution,” to spread the gifts of mindfulness through example, through word of mouth, and through practice. He offered us something we can all actually do, an action we can all take that will make our lives better. Furthermore, when we practice mindfulness, and then share it, others will benefit. This isn’t rocket science; it’s not Wall Street; it’s not taxes and deficits – it’s the ripple effect!
After Ryan spoke about his book, he answered questions from the audience. He inspired one teacher to spread mindfulness in a difficult school environment through example, through recruiting others, through a grass roots movement. He gave advice to a woman on how to bring mindfulness to the Coast Guard, admitting that sometimes top down approaches work too. He assured another woman that the big pharmaceuticals companies wouldn’t know what hit them when the nation began taking care of itself mindfully. He noted that mindfulness is not a Catholic thing, or a Buddhist thing, or any religion thing – it “transcends any religion”. In fact, it transcends politics too. Both liberals and conservatives recognize the value in caring for our environment, and mindfulness encourages “ways to live more simply while discovering a kind of prosperity that doesn’t abuse our planet.”
As I sat in the back of Harris Theater, the words of John F. Kennedy kept coming to mind, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Well, I’m no soldier, but I can breathe. I’m a damm good breather, mainly because I run. Ryan is saying that if I learn and practice mindfulness then my health will improve, my stress will decrease, my mind will be clearer, and I can finally lose those last five pounds. Breathe, breathe, breathe. Challenge accepted.
I went home and downloaded a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, whom Ryan studied mindfulness from and who wrote the Foreword to A Mindful Nation. In the following days, I got into the Lotus position (somewhat wilted, but it takes time) and focused on my breath. Again, Ryan never promised it was easy, just simple. He’s right. Countless times, I groaned aloud at the barrage of thoughts keeping me from enjoying my breath. I labored with deep breathing, yoga, and meditation. Throughout the day, I consciously slowed myself down. I brushed my teeth and flossed with an attention and care that would have made my dentist drop her drill with joy. I ate a pear like it was the first one I had ever bitten, letting the juices run down my fingers and feeling the fibrous pieces lodge between my teeth (because I had flossed so well and would again).
After a week, I reflected. I’m a writer, and that’s what writers do after all. I sat down with my journal and wrote on all parts of my life. How had my workweek gone first of all? Well, it had been extremely productive. Not that I am usually lazy, but this time I hadn’t noticed it until I reflected. In other words, I hadn’t been telling my girlfriends about all the work I had to do; I just had done it, dare I say, mindfully. I’m a writing teacher as well, and I didn’t feel any frustration with students during the week. Coincidence? I doubt it. They hadn’t changed; I had. How did my exercise program go? Surprisingly, I had managed to go for a run every day. However, I had skipped out on the gym, but I knew exactly why. I had wanted to go outside and run without my iPod. I ran to hear my breath and my feet. Mindful running? That’s exactly right, and it was liberating. Ryan had said that mindfulness was happening around us “because it is coming out of necessity.” We are overwhelmed with information, technology, and stress. I needed to reconnect with why I liked running. Of course, it helped that we had some perfect Virginia fall weather. How about my diet? I write down what I eat because, well, I’m a writer. Looking back, I had eaten less. Ok, so maybe it was only a few calories, but everything I did eat was healthy, with the exception of one Drumstick ice cream bar, but I do remember mindfully enjoying it.
According to Ryan, mindfulness can help teachers, students, nurses, doctors, patients, soldiers, and many more. It can improve our whole nation. That’s all well and good, but can it help my writing, Congressman Tim Ryan? Selfishness is something I have to work on…mindfully.
Ryan told one particular story on stage. He told about a young girl who had been through some unusual hardships. At school, she was taught mindfulness and introduced to the peace corner, a place in her classroom where she could go if she felt she was losing control of her emotions. Then Ryan told us how she went to this corner often and wrote. What? Write? Yes, he said answering my inner ramblings, she learned to handle her emotions and ended up writing essays that went on to help others deal with similar adversity. She wrote while being mindful. Yes!
After a few more days of working on mindfulness, I came across an app called Ommwriter. You can’t ignore synchronicity when it slaps you in the face. I bought it. Before I wrote, I practiced mindfulness, focusing on my breath, my senses, my body. It’s as if I put all the dirty socks in the hamper; all the brain clutter went away to make room for the writing thoughts to flow. My Ommwriter app provided soothing music, nostalgic typing keyboard sounds, and a snowy background for my words to lie upon. Now, after this last successful test, I’m ready to do what Ryan asked.
He wants to spread the practice of mindfulness, to help build a mindful nation, citizen by citizen. I recommend his book, A Mindful Nation, because I’ve tried it. Of course, I can’t guarantee that my health will be perfect, but don’t the odds greatly increase if I continue to eat well, exercise, and feel less stressed? Of course, I can’t guarantee that my novel will be published, but I can guarantee that it will be written. I can’t guarantee that my students will be successful, but I can guarantee that when they fail, they will know how to handle it.
As teachers we want to give our students every possible advantage, every edge up, we can. We teach daily about the gifts of writing and reading, and now we have a new gift to bring to our students, to empower them, to help them gain control over their emotions, their stress, their anxiety. The gift of mindfulness can improve our students’ writing, but more importantly, their lives.
Ryan finished by reminding us of the words of President Theodore Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
I’m thankful for having attended another event hosted by the Center for Consciousness and Transformation at George Mason University. Because of Tim Ryan’s book and talk, I am more like one “who strives valiantly” and less like a “timid soul”. I’m living mindfully with few regrets – except one – I was too shy to ask Congressman Ryan about his writing process! When he wrote A Mindful Nation, did he practice mindfulness? How about prewriting, planning, revising, editing and proofreading? Any writer’s block? Did he write in the morning, in that enchanted state between dreams and day? Did he write in the evening after his last email was answered?
Perhaps these are questions left for the Congressman’s second book, which I think should be named A Writing Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Continue to Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit. In the meantime, thank you, Congressman Tim Ryan, for writing and sharing your book, A Mindful Nation, and beginning “a quiet revolution”.
For those of you who were unable to see Congressman (D-Ohio) Ryan speak recently at Mason about his book, A Mindful Nation, and his efforts to integrate mindfulness concepts and practices into the national mainstream, you can watch the video HERE.